Eni, the Italian oil and gas group, has pulled out of Mali, citing poor prospecting outlook in the troubled African country, it was announced on Wednesday.

Eni spokesman said: “Eni has handed back licenses it had because of the very low potential of the area.”

Eni is the biggest foreign oil major in Africa and has identified the continent as one of its key drivers for growth.

The licenses were handed back before the recent outbreak of fighting in the country, he said.

Eni’s announcement came at a time when France dispatched more troops and conducted airstrikes to flush Islamist rebels from a town in central Mali.

This was after Al Qaeda militants controlling much of the country’s north had hunkered down and warned of a long conflict ahead.

A French official told Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that a coalition of troops from Mali’s West African neighbours would arrive within 10 days to bolster the fight against the militants.

The US has yet to decide on a specific action in support of the intervention, which began with French airstrikes last Friday.

Omar Hamaha, a veteran fighter with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the militant group that has overrun Mali’s north, told WSJ rebels were digging in in cities under their control, threatening a drawn-out guerrilla fight against foreign forces.

“Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain,” Hamaha shouted into the telephone. “This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”

France’s President François Hollande said French combat jets pinpointed the small garrison town of Diabaly, which rebels took on Monday after driving out the Malian army.

Diabaly is 30 miles south of what has been the front line between government-controlled territory and the rebel-held north of the Saharan country. Hamaha said French bombers began pounding areas outside the town around midnight.

France intervened in Mali last Friday in an effort to block an advance by rebel fighters whom the West fear could use the West African nation as a launching pad for international attacks.

Eni, in partnership with Algeria’s state-owned Sonatrach, said in 2006 it had acquired 5 exploration licenses in Mali’s Taoudeni Basin.


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